I was lying on my bed on the farm at Maleny, Queensland, when I noticed a lump in my left iliac fossa. It was a George Costanza moment: “Oh my god. My life is perfect and now I’m being punished with cancer.” That’s the type of hypochondriac I was. I rushed back to Brisbane to see a surgeon friend with whom I had worked at Princess Alexandra Hospital. “That’s feces in your colon,” he diagnosed.
This was to be the first of several impending death freak-outs I would have over the next few months. As I look back on this time I can’t help but think it was the blessings of Lama Yeshe keeping me off balance and beginning to reel me in.
How was my life perfect? I had a beautiful girlfriend, a beautiful career, a beautiful farm and a beautiful plan. The plan was to put the career on hold and travel with the girlfriend, Marie (now Ven. Yeshe Khadro), around the world for four years, come back to the farm and pick up where we had left off. The plan had largely come about because in the quiet moments I would often become aware of a deep-seated gnawing feeling that despite the beautiful life, something was missing. I really couldn’t put my finger on what it was, but the conclusion I finally arrived at was that I hadn’t seen the world. That must be it. The answer was travel, serious travel.
Hence the plan: Brisbane to Bali, chill there for a while, then Jakarta, Singapore, Bangkok and so on, hopping by plane through the various Pacific Rim capitals, across the Pacific to Vancouver, train to visit friends in Toronto, overland south through all the Americas to the bottom of Argentina, boat to Cape Town, overland north through all of Africa to London, stay there for a bit, then back to Australia overland through Europe, the Middle East and all of Asia. Four years. Then I’d be happy.
Eventually even paradise got boring, as it does, and we moved on, to Java. Our first stop was a coffee plantation near Surabaya owned by an Indonesian guy we’d met in Bali, one of the many locals we’d meet on the road who liked to befriend Westerners simply because they were Westerners. Since staying with him would be free, we accepted his invitation. Just after we got there I noticed a mole near my left little toe was bleeding. “Oh my god, it’s the classic sign of a melanoma. I’m going to die.” I got totally depressed, ruined the stay for everybody, and hastened to our next destination, Yogyakarta, where I went to the hospital and had my melanoma biopsied. It was nothing; my sandal strap had been rubbing on a simple mole. That was it. But this reminder of my mortality did serve to keep me from believing that what I was doing was pure happiness.
By the time we’d reached Bangkok I was experiencing some numbness and tingling in my hands. “Oh my god, I’m getting MS. I’m going to die.” I got in touch with a Thai doctor with whom I’d worked at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and had nerve conduction studies done. Diagnosis: my heavy backpack was pulling on the nerves in my neck. Lighten up. But don’t get too comfortable.
In Thailand I saw monks, stupas, temples and Buddha statues everywhere and thought that, as a good tourist, I should understand the culture of this country through which I was traveling. But our budget was $1 a day for travel, food and accommodation and there was nothing left over for books. Therefore, in a well-planned shoplifting heist, I stole my first Dharma book, Buddhism, by Christmas Humphreys, from a Bangkok bookstore.
We hitched northeast from Bangkok to the Mekong and took the ferry across to Vientiane, Laos. We found a cheap hippie hovel to stay in and then I went to the market and bought a sheaf of dope for about 10 cents. I took it back to our room, lit up and opened my stolen Buddhist book. Now, I wouldn’t recommend this book to anybody today, but as I read, a strange thing happened. As I came across the concepts of karma, rebirth, emptiness and other fundamental teachings, I felt my heart stir and the thought “This sounds true” arose. True, not in the sense that an anatomy textbook is true, but true in a much deeper sense. It was weird. I hadn’t ever felt like that before.
So, we traveled on. To Luang Prabang, Ban Houay Xai, Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai (where again I got sick and thought I was dying from leukemia) and back to Bangkok. We then spent an amazing week in Burma: Rangoon, Mandalay, Pagan, Pegu, back to Rangoon. Stupas, temples, statues, texts. Then to Calcutta, where we went to the Mahabodhi Society and got some more books on Buddhism. After a week there, it was time to head north for our rendezvous with Lars.
We took the train to Raxaul and crossed the border into Nepal, where we stayed a night in Birganj and then took the morning bus to Kathmandu. All along the way I was reading these books and trying to tell Marie all about Buddhism. She wasn’t interested. As a recovering Catholic, she wasn’t in a hurry to get into another religion. As I raved on she looked out the window at the scenery.
We got off the bus and saw José, a Brazilian guy we’d also known in Bali and Kathmandu. He greeted us like long-lost friends and took us to his hotel, just off New Road. I asked him if he’d seen Lars. He hadn’t. He showed us around town: where to eat, where to listen to music, where to get the best pie, where to buy the best curd, and, of course, where to buy dope (Freak Street). Almost as an aside, he mentioned, “And if you’re interested in meditation, there’s a meditation course starting next week at this monastery near Boudhanath.” Meditation? That’s what I’d decided to check out later. Perhaps the time had come. Anyway, since Lars wasn’t around, I’d have to wait for him.
We did, and the rest is history.